Public Enemies

When I saw the title my first thought was, “Why is it plural? A movie about John Dillinger starring the illustrious talented Johnny Depp should clearly be called, ‘Public Enemy.’ Unless of course, Michael Mann is going to make a moral equivalency argument that the government that hunted down Dillinger was just as “criminal” or immoral as Dillinger. Therefore, the real public enemies are Hoover and his FBI gang.” And this is what I believe Mann has tried to do. Dillinger is depicted as a man without a country in that he is a Romantic, a “criminal with a heart of gold”: he doesn’t take individuals’ money at the bank, only bank money; He is a devoted and gentle lover of one woman in a world of sleaze; and he lives for the moment, being fiercely loyal to his friends. He doesn’t look beyond tomorrow, so eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die. This existential worldview is depicted in the movie as being anachronistic in a modernizing era as crime syndicates learn to build a regular established illegal income through gambling rather than dangerous one-off bank robbing. Crime has lost its romance of the individual and become big business. Dillinger cannot continue to exist in this world with his fun loving devil may care Robin Hood romanticism. If you don’t change with the times, you will die, survival of the fittest. J. Edgar Hoover is depicted as a fool without any experience, therefore unworthy of his position. And the “good guy” tracking down Dillinger, Melvin Pervis, is depicted as cold and emotionless, a man of science who represents the future of the FBI, as he relies on new scientific techniques of forensics to track down bad guys, thus taking out all the glory of the human intuition. Pervis’ henchmen beat Dillinger’s woman, making them look more cruel than Dillinger. The Untouchables, this is NOT, as the good guys are portrayed as villainous and traitorous as the bad guys, in fact, quite often, simply stupid or neanderthal. So this is also a movie about the death of the romantic notion of Robin Hood redistributive justice in favor of the modern scientific method (forensics) and the big business of criminal syndicates. The real public enemies in this movie, as embodied in the FBI characters as well as crime syndicates are Enlightenment science and “corporatism” that has crushed the individual zest for life.

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